Several years ago, on “60 Minutes,” CBS presented a segment on the ancient Kingdom of Bhutan. It included video that depicted the country’s indescribable beauty, its seclusion, its snow-capped peaks that rise above primeval forests, and its picturesque villages. These video clips were accompanied by narration that chronicled the government’s attempts to preserve the traditional customs and morés of this tiny country. But what really captivated my attention was the fact that Bhutan has continually been ranked as the happiest country in all of Asia, and the eighth in the world according to Business Week. Yet, somehow, as recently as 2007, this country also had the second fastest growing economy in the world when measured by gross domestic product. It achieved this level of growth while at the same time maintaining its environment, its cultural identity, and a high standard of living. In 1998 Bhutan’s prime minister introduced the concept of “Gross National Happiness” to a United Nations forum as a alternative paradigm for GDP.
I quickly decided to add Bhutan to my list of “must-visit” countries. It would be a few years before I made my journey to this small, land-locked, remote kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between its powerful neighbors, China and India. My trip required more than two years of careful planning. I learned early on that Bhutan has been one of the most “closed” countries in Asia. Visiting as an independent traveler is pretty much impossible–an official tour purchased from local travel agent is compulsory. I was able to find an online agent called Jachung Travel, and I began making arrangements. This agency arranges everything: flights from Bangkok, ground transportation, hotels, meals, drivers and guides, and even a visa.
Finally in 2006, I was off to Bangkok where I would catch a flight on to Bhutan. The three-hour flight was on Druk Air (Royal Airlines of Bhutan)–the official airline of Bhutan and was headed to Bhutan’s international airport, located at Paro, about 35 miles from Thimphu, the capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Shortly after takeoff, the plane climbed into a cloud bank before breaking out into a bright morning sun as plane reached altitude. The approach into Paro is one of the more difficult, I am told, in the world of aviation. The aircraft began a steep descent, and, as it broke out from the clouds, it dropped sharply into the Paro Valley. My view was dominated by mountains topped with occasional patches of snow.
I later learned that the international airport in Paro has one of the most challenging landing patterns of any airport in the world. The flight path into the airport curves its way into a narrow valley between high mountains. The usual electronic devices that guide the aircraft will not work here due to the unique landscape surrounding the runway. The pilot is not able to see the runway until right at the end of the approach because it is necessary to navigate around a hill to lineup on the center of the runway. Luckily for me, I learned this little tidbit of trivia after I had landed safely in Bhutan!
After I passed through immigration control, I was greeted by my guide who held a slate bearing my name. He relieved me of my luggage and we walked to the car where the driver was waiting. These two young men would be with me throughout my stay in Bhutan.
The drive along the Thimphu Highway was like something out of a travel magazine. My camera was busy as I recorded the massive evergreens that flooded the landscape. Prayer flags flapped in a gentle breeze that was strong enough to set temple chimes in motion. The landscape is not flat but rather rises and falls in the course of short distances creating valleys where rivers of crystal clear water–free of the pollution we know in the West–course their along the bottom land. We stopped for photos where the pine-scented air was fresh and clean. A cluster of buildings stretched out in the valley below me constituting a picture-postcard view of the Kingdom of Bhutan. I wondered to myself: “Have I arrived at the last Shangri-La?”
Another thing that caught my eye as we drove along Bhutan’s rather primitive roadways was the country’s distinctive architecture. The cliff-hugging monasteries and temples, and the solid-earth farmhouses, the distinctive official political office buildings, the impressive fort-monasteries/administrative buildings all follow a general, traditional pattern. There are notable variations among these structures as dictated by variations in local topography and the availability of building materials in certain areas.
For centuries Bhutan was almost completely cut off from the outside world. Then, in the 1970s, the country slowly began to allow in some aspects from the outside world while, at the same time, fiercely protecting its ancient traditions.
My guide told me the legend about Bhutan’s founding father who had a dream in which he saw nine dragons. As they took flight, their wings caused a booming clap of thunder and flowers rained down from the sky. He interpreted these signs as a religious mandate to found a spiritual center. He named the place “Druk,” which means something like “land of the thunder dragon.” Druk remains the local name for Bhutan and the image of a dragon appears on the Bhutanese flag.
The travel agency had prepared an itinerary for my visit listing stops at temples, monasteries, and dzongs. “What is a dzong?” I asked. I learned that the term refers to a fortified building that incorporates both administrative and monastic institutions. Dzongs serve as a focal points for the local community during religious festivals and showcases the country’s artistic and intellectual heritage.
On my first morning I visited the Punakha Dzong which is set along the banks of a river and ringed by jacaranda trees. It is almost universally regarded as the most beautiful and majestic of the several dzongs in Bhutan. It dates from the 17th century and is the place where all of Bhutan’s kings have been crowned. The current King married here in 2011. It is the second oldest and second largest dzong in all of Bhutan. Punakha Dzong served as the administrative center and the seat of the Government of Bhutan until 1955 at which time the capital was relocated to Thimphu.
Perhaps the most uniquely picturesque place I visited was on my third morning when I arrived at the Taktsang Monastery. This popular, prominent Buddhist temple literally “hangs” on a cliff-side that overlooks a valley below. Over the years this site has become the cultural icon of Bhutan. The temple is also known as the “tiger’s nest” due to a popular legend that tells how a former wife of a Tibetan king became a disciple of Guru Rinpoche. She transformed herself into a tigress and carried the Guru on her back from Tibet to the present location of the Taktsang Monastery. In one of the caves here, the Guru performed meditation and the it became a “holy” place.
On my last day in Bhutan I visited the Takin Preserve. Perhaps no place better illustrates the particular Bhutanese approach to the celebration and preservation of the world order than this unique location in Thimphu district. The takin (a kind of goat) has been the “national animal” of Bhutan since 2005. The preserve was originally a mini-zoo but when the King of Bhutan concluded that it was improper for a Buddhist country to confine animals, the release of the takin followed; however, after their release, the takin would not inhabit the nearby forests. Instead they tended to remain in the same general area of the mini- zoo where they had been confined for years. In a few instances they were spotted foraging for food along the city streets of Thimphu! All of these factors prompted the decision to convert the 8-acre tract (the former mini-zoo) into a permanent preserve to insure the protection and preservation of the takin.
Compared with its budget-friendly neighbors such as India and Nepal, a visit to Bhutan is quite expensive–it costs an official US $250 per day per person to sample the charms of this isolated Himalayan kingdom. This fee does, however, include your visa, land transportation, accommodation in a 3-star hotel, food, taxes, and guide service. Despite these costs, since this tiny kingdom opened its doors to tourism almost four decades ago after years of isolation, there is no denying that this is a highly regarded destination among a good number of travelers. My visit to Bhutan alluded me for several years, but finally, after only dreaming of visiting this mystical Himalayan kingdom, I made the journey. Bhutan was near the top on my “ultimate” bucket-list of destinations and I am so grateful that I was finally able to travel here.
Next time: “Auschwitz: Remembering the forgotten”